Along with about 750,000 other people, I showed up to the Los Angeles Women’s March in January in a state of shock, looking for catharsis and some indication of what to expect from the burgeoning mainstream resistance movement.
The size of the crowd was a hopeful sign, signaling collective anger at Trump’s inauguration and all that it represented, including but not limited to misogyny, xenophobia and racism. But there was one point when I felt distinctly deflated. A wave of female celebrities took to the stage to speak out as part of a program that featured back-to-back speeches from a number of actors who play politicians on TV. They were all actors I like and whose shows about Washington, D.C., I watch regularly. The issue wasn’t the women themselves or even what they had to say — each one was smart, passionate and well-spoken. But hearing them speak one after another and thinking about what that lineup represented, I had a hard time imagining a path forward that didn’t put us right back in the same spot: scared, confused, angry and exhausted. In other words, it's the same mentality that has brought us to a mainstream “resistance” movement that finds political relevance in staying home, freaking out and stress-eating cake.
During the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s celebrity surrogates and supporters were a source of pride and reassurance for many of the people who'd hoped she would win. A profusion of think pieces, listicles and infographics drew a line between the numerous hip, young celebrities who made viral videos for the DNC and the paltry lineup of D-list celebrities who were just barely willing to be associated with Trump. Moments such as Clinton’s guest spot on Broad City clinched her inevitable win in the eyes of many, confirming what they already knew from poll after poll. And, conversely, Trump's lineup of has-beens like Scott Baio was a sure sign that his campaign was doomed. In the immediate aftermath of the election, that perspective shifted radically.
As with most elements of this protracted DNC death rattle, the takeaway has been that the overall strategy was correct but that it was executed improperly. A number of autopsies of this nightmare election cycle have pointed to the specific celebrities who supported Clinton’s campaign as the issue — this particular batch didn’t have the right optics for her campaign and didn’t appeal to the right audience. Most of the focus has been the demographic makeup of these celebrity surrogates and their fan bases. They were too white, too elite, too female, too urban, too young, too alienating to Red State voters. This was heavily implied in Michael Moore’s post-election claim that “the left should pay attention to what America watches” and become more astute viewers of The Bachelorette, which more or less posits that voters in coastal urban areas simply missed Trump’s appeal as a D-list reality celebrity.
But the reality is that the discord around celebrity-sponsored political activism has nothing to do with taste or TV viewing habits, and most people who found Clinton’s celebrity endorsements alienating aren’t culture warriors. The lineup of celebrities who appeared in the promotional video for the Democratic Convention struck a weird chord not only with conservatives but also with anyone who was actually hungry for a “fight song” against the entrenchment of a political machine that has left them without access to jobs, health care or education. Why should anyone being buried in student loan debt automatically assume that the stars of Pitch Perfect are fighting for the same things they are? One of the video’s stars, Mandy Moore, bought a $2.95 million home the week after the inauguration and another, Rob Reiner, has been renting out his Malibu beach house for upward of $100,000 per month for the last few years. Meanwhile, access to affordable housing is at crisis levels across the United States, according to the United Nations.
Celebrity activism is essentially a microcosm of how both of our major parties function and what type of political future they can offer. During the election, Democrats, Republicans and their respective celebrity supporters represented different flavors of conservatism. For Republicans, this approach was completely in line with their political values and vision. Wealthy, angry, white men like Ted Nugent and Kid Rock perfectly encapsulate the platform of the party and its grotesque siren call to return to the days of unrestricted prosperity, inequality and open hatred. Their M.O. of courting outrage is better suited to a political climate where people are openly dissatisfied and looking for a change of any kind.
For Democrats, it’s a little more complicated. While the stated “brand” of the party yearns to be progressive and righteous, it’s been clear for a long time that the DNC’s leadership has no actual desire to implement reforms that stray too far from the status quo. If the pseudo-patriotic tagline “America is already great” didn’t indicate a lackluster appetite for change, the Dems’ egregious use of celebrity surrogates should have been the final red flag and warning of a weak-tea political movement.
Most major celebrities are, by definition, well-served by the status quo. Their lives and livelihoods are built on a system that is largely sustained through inequality, no matter how much they give back to their families or the “less fortunate.” They have no vested interest in challenging or changing anything past a certain point, regardless of how progressive their personal politics are. When they advocate “resistance” of any kind, it makes sense to keep the focus relatively narrow and external, because anything else would be massively destabilizing to every aspect of their lives, starting with their ability to accumulate wealth. Income inequality has risen sharply in recent years, which corresponds with a rise in racism and xenophobia — i.e., defining features of the election cycle and winning candidacy. If the celebrity-led hashtag-resistance wanted to hit these issues at their core, they’d make systemic economic inequality a central feature of their protests. Instead they strike out at personalities over power structures. There’s a reason that Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech “eviscerating” Trump focused on MMA fans and not Steven Mnuchin, the member of Trump’s administration and film producer who was nominated for several awards that night. Even though many of the vocally anti-Trump, anti-Republican A-listers in attendance are in positions of relative power to negotiate with Mnuchin and the studios he works with, none of them called him out that night — or any night during awards season or any night since then.
Similarly, when Disney chairman Bob Iger joined Trump’s advisory council (which he has since left) and claimed that it would bring “Disney values” to the White House, there was little outcry from within the entertainment industry. Calling out these powerful executives could have serious consequences for any celebrity’s career, starting with the fact that they’d be biting the hand that signs their paychecks. Beyond that, most celebrity activists who have looked inward instead of outward have been ostracized or otherwise punished in the court of public opinion — for example, Jane Fonda protesting the Vietnam War during the height of her '60s popularity and Marlon Brando speaking out on racism toward Native Americans in movies.
Pointing at a problem “over there” is a frictionless form of resistance — it’s easy to gauge how people will respond (especially important if your job depends on being liked), the person or institution you’re criticizing has no power to retaliate, and there is almost zero pressure or expectation for you to actually do work to change anything. Using this as the model for a resistance movement is a straight shot back into the embrace of the status quo. Actual resistance (versus #resistance) requires people to have skin in the game — to risk taking stances that are militant and unpopular and could cost them personally. Despite what contemporary Pride parades might suggest, the original leaders of the LGBT movement were marginalized, angry, desperate and hated by most people, not telegenic, wealthy and loved by a broad spectrum of the public. With a few notable exceptions, we should assume that any celebrity talking about “resistance” is actually pointing to limited change, and proceed with caution accordingly.